Choosing a Simple Prime Kit

When I started in photography, zooms were rare. I didn’t get to use one until college, and that was on a 16mm film camera. I think I bought my first still camera zoom lens at the end of my undergrad years. Indeed, primes were really most of what I used up through the mid-90’s. 

Here’s the thing about using primes: you tend to think a bit more about perspective, because framing is dictated by your feet (moving position) more than your hand (zooming). Sure, you can change lenses and keep the same perspective, but you usually only have a range of choices limited to the number of primes you have in your bag. 

Moreover, changing lenses is slower than just moving your position most of the time. So you’re always balancing the “change lens and keep perspective” decision with the “leave lens on and change perspective” decision. You’re almost always thinking about perspective, a good thing.

The distance you position your camera from your subject determines perspective. Period. 

A lot of people try to make perspective harder than it is, but it’s really that simple: subject distance from camera. If you want to test that, put a zoom on your camera. Take a shot at the wide end, and then without moving closer, zoom all the way in and take another shot. Now crop the wide shot to the angle of view of the telephoto one: they’re the same perspective. Subject/Foreground and Subject/Background relationships are the same between the two shots.

Now do the following: take a shot of a subject with your zoom all the way in. Now zoom all the way out and try to match the angle of view by using your feet to change things. Compare those two shots: very different Subject/Foreground and Subject/Background relationships. 

Perspective is one of the least used techniques by amateur photographers. It’s one of the things that immediately gives away someone that has studied photography (or someone who’s lucky ;~): their shots can and do look different. 

Back when I taught filmmaking at Washington State University and then Indiana University, one of the things that I harped about all the time was lack of perspective. One common rule of thumb for any film scene is to have an establishing shot (wide that shows the set and the relationships of the actors) as well as isolation shots. 

Okay, so what happens if you are lazy with your setup and just leave the camera set up in the same place and zoom to get the wide angle and telephoto shots? Yep, un-involving and constant perspective. This is actually one of the things you can do at home to help you understand how perspective can be worked to advantage: study one scene from a well-made movie. Think about where the camera was for each shot in that scene, and how far it was from the subjects in that scene. Camera moved around quite a bit, didn’t it? And each shot in the scene reveals something slightly different about the relationships.

One of my favorite uses of fixed perspective came in a movie many of you probably don’t remember: the biopic on Lenny Bruce (Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman as Bruce). As Bruce is having his meltdown and bombing on stage, the director of the film (Bob Fosse) did something very unusual: he did not move the camera from the establishing shot taken in the audience, and he didn’t zoom in. He left us at a great distance from Bruce and it makes Bruce seem isolated and small. Trust me, film and video directors know about perspective. It’s one of the ways they manipulate you. So why aren’t you using it in your still work? ;~)

Note: I’m going to use full frame equivalent focal lengths throughout, and typically Nikkor examples. If you’re using APS/DX, divide by 1.5 to 1.7x depending upon your camera, m4/3 divide by 2, Nikon 1 divide by 2.7, to get the actual focal length you should be using.

The Two-Prime Kit
Let’s start small. Let’s say that you only want to carry two prime lenses with you. Are you traditional, or are you modern? 

The traditional route would have been to carry a 35mm and 50mm prime. A moderate wide angle and normal lens, basically. These are historically-motivated choices. In ye olden dayes of photography, prime lens designs basically all revolved around 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm due to what was then known about optical characteristics, and the way lenses were created and polished. We didn’t yet have modern computer designs to simulate optical rays, we didn’t have aspherical lens designs, and for the most part designers were just beginning to experiment with groups of elements as opposed to individual elements. We didn’t have sophisticated coatings, either, which tended to be a problem with some big glass and highly curved glass. The mid-range primes were easier and less expensive to create, and thus became the norm.

But that also established the “look” of most photography through much of the 20th Century. If we make an assumption—and we should—that there are visually useful places to crop subjects such as the human body, and there are also visually problematic places to do so, we quickly discover that 50mm lenses were used at particular distances from human subjects, establishing a perspective. We grew up—at least us older folk—looking at image after image taken within a fairly short range of perspective. Ditto for 35mm, though there the motivation was capturing the entire human body or multiple humans in the frame. Still, perspectives tended to get established that we’re visually used to.

If you’re in the under 20 crowd, you might not fully appreciate those perspectives. Smartphones have had fixed focal length lenses, and lately that’s trended to be about 28mm. So “normal perspective” for the young crowd is decidedly different than for the older crowd. 

(I should point out that “normal perspective” for young smartphone users differs across countries, too. People stand closer in Europe than they do in the US, for example.) 

The in-betweeners were exposed to zoom lenses and thus fixed perspectives with different compositions. 

Thus, how you pick a two prime lens set is very likely to vary with age. Over 60? I’ll bet that 35mm and 50mm are your first two choices of primes. Under 30? I’m guessing that something like 28mm and 85mm are more likely to appeal to you. The 28mm side because you’re used to your smartphone perspective, the 85mm side because you want to get tighter compositions from the same position and 35mm certainly isn’t going to give you enough difference. 

The in between crowd? Probably 24mm and 85mm, because those are the extremes of the mid-range zoom that was more popular than primes during their career, and they’ll want those extremes still available.

That said, what you photograph should also have an influence on you. 

In landscape photography, for instance, perspective became one of the key elements of composition via the near/middle/far concept. A dominant near that was unique to the area (e.g. cactus), a recognizable far (e.g. mountain), and an interesting middle (e.g. stream, field, cabin, etc.). To get this shot you have to use wide angle lenses in close to the near element. And I mean wide and close. Wider and closer than most people are comfortable with.

My mentor typically used only a 20mm lens for his work, but I’ve seen others range from 14mm to 24mm for these depth-involved landscape shots. 28mm and 35mm just aren’t wide enough so that you can get the forced perspective exaggeration that became common in these landscape images. 

At the other end, landscape photographers tend to want to isolate something out of the jumble in front of them, so 20mm and 85mm (or even anything out to 200mm) would be a reasonable pick for a two prime landscape lens set. Indeed, my mentor tended to only use a 20mm and an inexpensive and light 80-200mm for his landscape work.

A different example would be portraiture. A perspective where the camera is a bit further from the subject flattens and tends to flatter most subjects, which is why something in the 85mm range became so standard. A head and shoulders shot taken with 85mm presents a perspective that is a little flattening on the subject, but not distortedly so. (By the way, you add some depth back in by turning your subject slightly: don’t have them stand square to you, but then have them look to you.)  Depending upon how much you like the flattening effect, you’re likely to pick a portrait pair of primes of 50mm and 85mm, or 85mm and 105mm, or maybe 85mm and 135mm. 

With only two lenses to choose to put in your kit, you really have to think about what you’re trying to accomplish and how perspective influences that. For me, my two lens set is either going to be 20mm or 24mm at the wide end, and either 85mm or 105mm at the long end. I’m not a fan of the 35/50mm lenses, partly because I’m trying to distinguish my image taking from a long history of those that came before me. But if you want to emulate that, by all means pick something like 28mm/50mm, or 35mm/50mm. 

So: pick one of the following sets for FX (DX is coming, below):

  1. Nikon 20mm f/1.8G and Nikon 85mm f/1.8G
  2. Nikon 24mm f/1.8G and Nikon 85mm f/1.8G or Sigma 85mm f/1.4
  3. Nikon 35mm f/1.4G or Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and Nikon 85mm f/1.8G or Sigma 85mm f/1.4

Why no Otus? Bang for the buck. But if you’ve got the bucks and don’t mind size and weight, buy the Zeiss Otus that corresponds to the lens in the suggestions, above.

Why no Nikkor f/1.4G’s? I just don’t see them as worth the price differential. The only reason you’d buy them instead of the f/1.8G’s is because you absolutely will be shooting in low light and need the extra two-thirds of a stop. 

The Three- or Four-Prime Kit
The minute you go beyond two primes, I think that you’re essentially eschewing zoom lenses but looking for flexibility. You’re not targeting a single perspective ideal, but rather trying to be ready for a range of possibilities. You’re still a bit tied to perspective—especially if you pick primes very far apart in focal length—but you’re probably also looking for perspective alternatives for many situations. 

Here’s what I think about the multi-prime approach: minimal or maximal.

By minimal, I mean you’re thinking of the three lenses that give you the most alternatives. To me that means something significantly wide (24mm/28mm), something normal (50mm), and something significantly telephoto (85mm/105mm). The closer you place the three lenses (e.g. 35-50-85), the less extreme you can push perspectives. Personally, I’d actually probably want 24-40-85 over 35-50-85), as my personal compositional/perspective ethic runs wider and closer than I can achieve with 35/50). 

If you’re going to go with only three primes, you really need to think this through. Big gaps between primes make for shots you can’t get, because you’ll either be framing something wider in close, or something tighter out further than you wanted to. 

Let’s jump to the opposite extreme: maximal. With Nikon these days I can carry a 20, 24, 28, 35, 50, and 85mm f/1.8 lens set that’s very good. To that I can add older 105mm, 135mm, and 180mm lenses that are still very good, even on the 36mp bodies. So technically, I could go from 20-180mm in nine modest-sized, fast aperture lenses that are optically excellent. What more would I want? (Okay, I’m a wildlife photographer much of the time, and that requires long glass, but for this article I’m speaking for the broader photography approaches, not one specific one.) Amazingly, two bodies and all that glass fit easily in my usual backpack. But that’s a lot of lens changing. Are you really going to change lenses that much? Indeed, are you going to go slightly lazy on perspective rather than changing a lens much of the time? If so, you probably should carry fewer lenses or go to a zoom lens approach. 

So, choose your lenses from these:

  • Nikon 20mm, 24mm, 35mm, 85mm f/1.8G
  • Sigma 35mm, 50mm, 85mm f/1.4 Art Lenses (maybe 20mm and 24mm, too)
  • Tamron 35mm, 45mm, or 85mm f/1.8

Why no Zeiss lenses? Pricey and manual focus. I’m not sure you’ll get as much from them as you expect because of that second element, which will be variable using a DSLR viewfinder.

Why no Nikon f/1.4G’s? See what I wrote above.

Are the Tamrons really in that same league? Yes. They’re also unique in this category because they have image stabilization, which will appeal to the handholding shooters among you.

Some Other Kits
Back to the two-lens prime approach, but with a zoom addition. What if you covered your mid-range with a zoom (24-70mm)? Now add two primes: 20mm and 85mm. Done. Frankly, I find this a better choice than going completely maximal on primes or zooms. These days, zoom lenses are awfully good optically. Yes, you can find somewhat better acuity and faster aperture in a prime, but are you really needing either of those things, or are you in the “good enough” approach where a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom covers you perfectly well in that focal range?

Personally, when I go all prime, I tend to go with three Nikkors, and they’ll probably surprise you: 20mm f/1.8G, 35mm f/1.8G, 85mm f/1.8G. Why not the f/1.4 lenses? They’re bigger, more expensive, and at f/2.8 and beyond no better, and I rarely need f/1.4 over f/1.8. Why those focal lengths? The 85mm is easy: portraiture and detail isolation. The 20mm because I like forced perspective when I shoot wide, and the 35mm because I just don’t tend to take “normal” photographs. 35mm tends to be more my normal. 

Besides, you may have noticed I didn’t mention a single Nikon 50mm up to this point. Why? Because they’re all older designs and quite frankly, showing their age. The Sigma and Tamron mid-range primes are better.

More primes than two with a zoom? No. I’d recommend that you simply pick good zoom lenses before deep ending in a bag full of primes. The trick, however, is to think of your zoom as an infinite source of primes, not as a short cut to composition.

The DX Problem (Buzz Buzz)
My use of FX focal lengths masks a bit of a problem. Let’s look at what I wrote about in this article using a DX viewpoint:

  • 35,50,85 — We really only have the middle in DX. We really need a 24mm and  57mm DX lens to make this combo. We can sub in the 24mm f/1.8G and 58mm f/1.4G as bigger and more expensive replacements, though. That’s exactly what I do.
  • 28/85 or 24/85 — Same problem. We can use the existing G’s again for the first (20/58), but have no real answer for a 24mm equivalent prime in DX.
  • 24/40/85 — No answer, though you can kind of duplicate the latter two with FX primes (24mm and 58mm). 
  • 20/24-70/85 — Again no answer on the wide end, though we can sub the 16-80mm for something better than the latter two, reducing us to a theoretical two lens set again. Only it’s theoretical, as there is no 14mm DX prime. The best you can do is pick up a Samyang/Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 manual focus lens.

dpreview asked Nikon executives about DX lenses at CP+ 2016, though in their vague and non-threatening way. Nikon's answer, if translated correctly, needed an immediate and specific followup, which didn’t happen. The answer was “Yes we have plans for more lenses, if necessary after analyzing the needs of the market.” 

I call bullshit. Marketing bullshit to be specific. Hold out hope, but give yourself an out.

Let me tell you why the answer is bullshit: if Nikon doesn’t already know what the demand for DX lenses is and how DX lens availability compares to all the competitors (including FX), then they’ve been spending too much time at the Saki bars in Tokyo and not enough time doing their jobs. 

Further in the interview, Nikon says “we’d recommend a DX lens with the D500, because it’s a DX camera.” Again, I’d love to see the original Japanese. Why? Because of the singular “a”. If Nikon thinks of DX users as only using a single lens, then I wonder why they make the DX cameras with an interchangeable lens mount at all. 

Simply put, Nikon dropped the ball on DX lenses and their DSLR sales are down partly because of that. I’d be happy to supply Nikon with the “analyzing the needs of the market” bit. But they’ll be very unhappy to hear that thousands of that market moved to another competitor, partly to get the lenses they needed. As I’ve pointed out, the only four lens mounts that don’t have a full product line behind them are: Canon EOS M, Canon EF-S, Nikon DX, and Sony E. Fujifilm’s line is full, the m4/3 line is full. Heck, even Samsung’s line was fuller, and Pentax’s eclectic lineup can arguably be called fuller, too. 

So Nikon executives read this: if you enable competitors to take some of your customers away, don’t be surprised that your sales are down. 

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